Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., visited Kansas State University on Jan. 19, 1968. It was his last speech before a university audience and accorded just 10 weeks before he was assassinated. How King’s visit was accepted by K-Staters and the people of Manhattan is a matter of opinion, but excerpts from his speech reflect a much more aggressive King who was becoming isolated by many Civil Rights leader because of his vocal opposition to the war.
As he delivered his address, he advocated for nonviolent approaches to remedy social tensions and advance the health of the country. Dr. King focused on encouraging students to find peace in the nation and lead the American society into the future.
The year 1968 was especially noteworthy in K-State history. Not only was Dr. King assassinated a few weeks after he spoke on campus, so was Senator Robert F. Kennedy. On March 18, Kennedy made his first public speech at K-State after announcing that he was a candidate for the presidency (the University of Kansas also claims that distinction but Kennedy spoke here in the morning and at KU later in the day!). Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet on June 6 after winning the presidential primary in California. Both King and Kennedy addressed the Vietnam War in their remarks at K-State. The conflict drew the attention of President McCain and his administration for several years; the most visible example was the burning of Nichols Gym, also in 1968 (on Friday the 13th of December!), apparently at the hands of arsonists opposed to the war (the responsible parties were never arrested).
Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, but his message lives on as a legacy for future generations striving for good in the world.
King’s address concerned the issue of whether any real progress had been made in the area of race relations. He summarized the history of slavery and segregation in the U.S. pointing out how far integration had come; however, in truth, he told the audience that there was still so much that needed to be done in terms of racial equality. He said to ignore this truth would leave those in attendance “…the victims of an illusion wrapped in superficiality, and we would all go away the victims of a dangerous optimism.” He went on the summarize the discriminatory conditions the “Negro” faced around the country in a multitude of areas: violence (shootings, lynchings, and arson), housing, employment, education, and “psychological murder,” to name a few.
He reinforced his stance on confronting the plight of the Negro by non-violent means because it “…is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and human dignity.” At the same time, he stated he would be “…as vigorous in condemning the continued existence of intolerable conditions in our society…” He offered his views on how inequality should be addressed including the passage of legislation to address illegal behavior because the country had a debt to pay the American Negro whose ancestors were brought here in slavery and had not been allowed to obtain all the qualities of freedom through a myriad of discriminatory practices.
King felt the situation was enhanced by the Vietnam conflict taking place at the time. He explained how the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson was using the war to divert attention from civil rights and poverty. He answered those who criticized his opposition to the administration’s war policy by stating he could not support the war even if that meant jeopardizing his integration efforts. Instead, it was a matter of right and wrong and it was wrong to be involved in a war that could not be won. According to King it was a war where the U.S. government spent $500,000 for every Viet Cong killed versus spending $53 for an American living in poverty.
King admitted to the K-State students that he often got discouraged because of the conditions of racial inequality, as well as the war in Vietnam, and questioned if these problems could be solved. However, he continued by saying that when he visited college campuses and talked with students his hope was always renewed. “I think that you who sit here today under the sound of my voice may well have the answer, for it is the student generation that is saying to America that there must be a radical reordering of priorities. It is the student generation that is saying to America there must be a revolution of values, and is forcing America to review its values.”
Want to learn more about the change in direction King took during the last year of his life? Read “The Radical King We Didn’t Know: The Last Year of His Life.” in The Reflector, The Community Voice’s 2016 Black History issue.
To read the other Kansas Black History Facts posted this month, click here.
The Community Voice, “a trusted voice from the community’s perspective, is a biweekly newspaper distributed across Kansas. To read the latest issue of The Community Voice click here.